If you’re a Rossoneri fan, player or coach – then a flight on Emirates’ AC Milan-themed A380 is just the ticket for you.
Five AC Milan stars: Carlos Bacca, Giacomo Bonaventura, Mattia De Sciglio, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Riccardo Montolivo were present at its recent launch and posed for a selfie in front of the aircraft!
Will the plane help Milan scale new heights on and off the pitch – and qualify for European football this season?
We’ll soon find out but for now the red and blacks are keeping their feet on the ground.
Gonzalo Higuain left Napoli just eight months ago. His exit was a €90 million transfer that upset almost everyone except those connected to Juventus, with the competitive balance of Serie A seemingly dead and buried. It must be remembered that, despite failing to display any kind of form until November, the Bianconeri still ended the campaign nine points clear at the top of the table.
It seems almost unfair that a team already so dominant was adding a player who had just broken Italian football’s single-season scoring tally, his mark of 36 goals in just 35 games breaking a record that had stood since 1950. Was it crushing for a Napoli side who were one of just two teams with a realistic hope of catching the Bianconeri? Unquestionably so.
Higuain has already found the back of the net 23 times in all competitions this term, continuing the deadly form that made him so beloved during his three-year stay under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. His departure saw a Partenopei hero turn into a hate figure instantly, his No9 shirt burned and draped over dustbins [see Tweet below for a cracking example – Ed] across the southern city.
Napoli fans had worshiped the striker, lifting him onto the same pedestal occupied by his compatriot Diego Maradona who delivered the only two titles in the club’s history. The latter also brought a UEFA Cup triumph during his spectacular stint at the club, but Higuain’s goal scoring last term ignited hopes that the success-starved club could finally be champions once again.
Those dreams left town with the Argentinian, his match-winning goal at Juventus Stadium back in October underlining the gulf that remains between the two teams. Already trailing the Bianconeri by ten points in the league, last month saw the Old Lady take a 3-1 lead from the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final. Higuain’s name was on the scoresheet once again.
The return leg of that clash is next week in Naples, but three days earlier comes their second Serie A meeting of 2016/17, with the Stadio San Paolo undoubtedly set to deliver a hostile welcome. Higuain can expect every touch in his first game as a visitor to be jeered and whistled vociferously.
But, while few expect the home side to collect two victories from those games, here’s the deal: wins and losses come and go, cycles don’t last forever. There will come a time when Napoli beat Juventus again and – though it might not be for a quite a few years – even finish above them in the table. There will be a time when the underdog comes out on top, when they win the title once more because everything changes.
That is something both clubs can attest to, each having spent time in the lower divisions in the not-too-recent past. Juve and Napoli returned to Serie A together in 2007, the former recovering from their Calciopoli-induced relegation while the latter was slowly building their way back from being declared bankrupt just three years prior.
Perhaps nothing symbolises their resurgence more than the Higuain transfer, Napoli helping a player of his quality deliver his best football and the Bianconeri able to break their transfer record to add him to their squad.
It was a deal that changed the Serie A landscape, one which should unquestionably have had a profound effect upon both the club he was leaving and the one he opted to join. For Higuain, it was undoubtedly a business decision, the physical manifestation of a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy.
He has brought reliability in front of goal to Max Allegri’s side, even if the Coach took a few months to figure out how to use him. Eventually he turned to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Higuain as the spearhead of a system that also found space for Paulo Dybala, Miralem Pjanic, Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic.
Higuain's goal & assist vs Sassuolo pic.twitter.com/DIpj7BGCIM— Adam Digby (@Adz77) February 15, 2017
Yet while the work rate of the latter duo is often credited as a major reason that Allegri’s tactical shift has been viable, doing so overlooks the efforts of Higuain. His involvement in January’s win over Sassuolo encapsulates it perfectly, starting with an intelligent run and ending in an unerring finish.
That has of course been his true impact on this Juventus team, a guarantee in the penalty area when his team-mates can get Higuain the ball. He is a cold-blooded machine in that regard, one who wastes no movement or even the tiniest amount of energy if he doesn’t sense there is a goal in it for him.
If there is, he becomes unstoppable, like a shark smelling blood in the water, suddenly able to drive past defenders with a burst of pace that appears from nowhere. His second goal in that game shows how he has matured too, willingly pressing a Sassuolo defender into making a mistake, then firing a perfectly weighted ball to Sami Khedira who in turn slots it home.
Higuain did not celebrate the goals that ultimately led to two wins over Napoli, but similarly vital strikes against Fiorentina, Lyon and cross-town rivals Torino have slowly begun to end the notion that he chokes in the biggest matches. It would be reasonable if those doubts do still linger, but a double-header against Napoli followed by a Champions League quarter-final with Barcelona provides the perfect stage to end them once and for all.
As for Napoli, and all they lost when Higuain left, there is a strong argument to be made that the sale has ultimately not affected Maurizio Sarri’s side at all.
The coach has built something special at Napoli, an ensemble cast of performers who play his tune to perfection. Sure, they don’t win with the relentlessness of Juventus – who does? – but they deliver beautiful football, a carefully constructed passing game that changes tempo fluidly and is stunning to watch.
Deploying Dries Mertens in the central role was a masterstroke and has eased the pain of Higuain’s departure. Despite the Belgian winger standing at just 5’7” he was not asked to play as a “false nine,” but instead as an out-and-out centre forward. Leading the line and running behind defenders, he has been a revelation, boasting 25 goals in all competitions as he took to the role instantly.
But back to Higuain. He moved on to be “part of something special.” He didn’t want to take over the team in Turin, he wanted to join them and together they’re becoming a much better side.
Sure, he’s backed up by a squad that strictly speaking doesn’t “need” his help to beat anyone in domestic competition. He’s even probably not going to win top scorer honours because Juventus have too many weapons at their disposal. He’ll probably find his shins bruised by old team-mates and former friends as they look to find ways to stop him over their two meetings this week. An army of his former fans in Naples have hostility toward him. They will never embrace him the same way again.
But, so what?
In the end, those elements will never define either team. Napoli remain an incredible side no matter what the scoreboard says at full time of either game, and Gonzalo Higuain is winning, almost certainly helping Juventus become the first team ever to claim six consecutive Serie A titles.
Everything else – his former club, the city of Naples, Pepe Reina, Jose Callejon and Maurizio Sarri – are in his past and, frankly, none of it really matters.
Well, at least not until the next time he visits the San Paolo…
AS Roma president James Pallotta is a forthright individual, his interviews rarely filled with the usual media-savvy and cliche riddled ‘football speak’.
It doesn’t take long for him to demonstrate as much when he sits down with Sport360.
“We’re pretty serious on what we want to build, we’re not some Americans here doing a drive-by and just trying to make some money off the team,” Pallotta explains in his inimitable style.
The Massachusetts entrepreneur took control of Roma in 2012, with fans immediately skeptical that an outsider wanted to invest in the Giallorossi.
Their trepidation stemmed not from the fact he was a foreigner, but simply because he was not from the Italian capital. Romans, and particularly Roma supporters are notoriously insular, taking great pride in both their local identity and the isolation it subsequently creates.
It is therefore no surprise that playing for or coaching the club has been described as like living and working in a goldfish bowl. The country’s second-biggest newspaper, the Corriere dello Sport, is based in Rome and delivers four broadsheet pages of Roma news every day.
There are local TV shows each night dedicated to the club, while as many as six sports radio stations attract almost threequarters of a million listeners every day, tuning in to hear the latest news and opinions on their beloved side.
But given that he comes from Boston – where the Celtics, Bruins, Red Sox and New England Patriots all receive similar coverage – Pallotta understands that tribalism better than most. In fact, he relishes it and wants to see that presence in the spotlight grow.
Under his guidance, the club has worked to produce Roma Radio, Roma TV, Roma Studios and a new website that produces content in both Italian and English at a level unlike almost every other team in Italy.
They became the first European club to stream a match live on Facebook and – according to a recent survey by Result Sports – are the continent’s third-fastest growing club on social media. Yet Pallotta insists they’ve barely started.
“We have a willingness and a desire to prove that over the next 10 or fifteen years we can create a major global force in the sport,” Pallotta explains. “If I can use a baseball analogy, we might be in the second inning right now.”
That may well be true, but to continue the same metaphor, Roma have certainly not batted 1.000 over the first four years of his tenure.
Luciano Spalletti is the fifth coach to have been appointed in that time, following Luis Enrique, Zdenek Zeman, Aurelio Andreazzoli and Rudi Garcia.
Under each they have initially appeared to make progress, only to stumble and then need to make a change in order to move upwards once again.
“It’s not an easy sport and we’ve made mistakes,” Pallotta says. “Many times it’s been a case of two or three steps forward, one step back…but each time we get up ready to go again.”
They finished sixth during his first season in charge, but have since moved into a spot ahead of the chasing pack behind Juventus, establishing themselves as a permanent fixture in the top three.
From 2017-18 Serie A will have four guaranteed places in the Champions League – putting Roma in prime position to also become regulars in European football’s elite competition. But the 58-year-old owner is not resting on his laurels.
Off the field, his efforts have been concentrated on dragging the club into the 21st century, overhauling their infrastructure and giving them the best possible environment in which to succeed. “We got some things wrong there too but we’ve been rectifying those,” Pallotta admits.
“The new CEO Umberto Gandini, who was previously with AC Milan, is a huge uptick from what we were dealing with before. He has so much more experience in dealing with this world, and we have a new sporting director as we make changes to do what is best for the team.”
James Pallotta greets the team following the 3-1 win vs Sassuolo. pic.twitter.com/QvRYfwOp5a— Flo-Calcio AS Roma (@CalcioASRoma) March 19, 2017
They have spent the past two years improving their scouting network with regards to young players, winning the Primavera (Under-19) title last term and performing well at all youth levels as they look to help even more homegrown players follow in the footsteps of Francesco Totti, Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi.
Talk of the first-term, however, sees the conversation move away from Romans and inevitably to Miralem Pjanic (pictured). The Bosnian left the Giallorossi this past summer, joining Juventus after the Old Lady triggered a €32 million release clause in the contract he signed back in 2014.
Seeing a key player depart is always tough but watching him join a club Roma are working so hard to chase drew concern from Giallorossi supporters.
“It was definitely a lesson learned,” Pallotta says, his club only agreeing to include that aforementioned fee in his contract after his previous deal was almost allowed to expire.
With better planning and foresight, the problem would have never have arisen. As a result, the gap between Roma and Juventus has remained glaring, but the Roma president insists there is no reason they cannot eventually battle on equal footing.
“First of all we’ve gotta be smarter in the way we do things. Their continuity and management has been the same for decades, which is something we have to aspire to because that breeds stability. “Their stadium is also a major factor of course.”
The Juventus Stadium – one of only three club-owned facilities in Serie A – provides the Bianconeri with huge advantages in terms of revenue and income.
Roma are awaiting approval on a 52,000-seater project in the Tor di Valle area of the city, one without the Stadio Olimpico running track that leaves fans far removed from the action.
“Thats going to impact our financial position so significantly, so dramatically and it will make a huge difference,” Pallotta continues.
“Then can you imagine the atmosphere we can create with the incredible emotion of our fans that close to the pitch? A lot of teams certainly won’t enjoy visiting us there with a 50,000 vocal people cheering on Roma.”
There have been a number of delays to the process, some of which the American admits were due to self-inflicted errors but it is hoped that by reducing the size of external areas surrounding the stadium, approval should soon be granted. When all is said and done, Pallotta knows his side will always have a major advantage.
“We’re in Rome,” he says. “That matters.”